Genetics, Genesis and a philosophical gap

Dennis R, Venema & Scot McKnight, 2017. Adam and the genome: Reading scripture after genetic science. Grand Rapids MI: Brazos Press.

I’ve just read Adam and the genome. A Google search shows that it has stirred up much dust in the USA, and there are extensive reviews of it (e.g. here and here) and blog series that summarise it (start here and here), and an attack here, so I shall neither summarise nor review it, but simply make a few comments.

The relationship between science and Christian faith as it affects the reading of Genesis 1–3 to evoke a great deal of passion in the USA. Christians in the UK and Australia are in the main much less concerned about the issue—in my view rightly so, as the Christian gospel doesn’t depend on one’s interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis (I know not everyone would agree—a bit more on this below). I read the book not out of passion but out of curiosity, partly because I had read in several places that Venema’s exposition of molecular genetics and evolution was very lucid (and it is), and partly because I thought McKnight’s commentary on the Adam and Eve of the Bible might be interesting (it is).

Dennis Venema, an evolutionary biologist and evangelical Christian, wrote the first half of the book. He explains what evolutionary biology has to say about human origins and why, after a struggle, he has long since come to the conclusion that those findings are reliable. He explains—laudably—that scientific theories can never be declared dogmatically true, and are always subject to refutation, but that so much support has been gathered for some theories—and evolution is one of these—that refutation is very unlikely. He sketches human evolution, making the crucial point that changes occur in populations, not in individuals, and that modern humans (Homo sapiens) are descended from a population of at least ten thousand, not from a single couple.

Venema’s last chapter tackles intelligent design, particularly Michael Behe’s Darwin's black box (1996) and Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the cell (2009) and Darwin’s doubt (2013). Both authors argue that the information contained in the genome could not have arisen by chance but must be the product of a creative intelligence. Neither is associated with young-earth creationism and neither, as I understand it, denies evolution. As I read this chapter, I realised that, by Venema’s definition, I am also a (vague) believer in intelligent design, persuaded by John Lennox, an Oxford mathematician (God’s undertaker, 2007) (see my review). Venema’s chapter argues that there is ample evidence that the genomes of today’s creatures, including those of human beings, can be explained by the findings of molecular genetics (i.e. evolutionary biology) without recourse to a divine intelligence. This means, for him, that intelligent design is a God-of-the-gaps argument (i.e. an argument that uses God to explain something that science cannot—and the kind of argument spurned by most Christians in science).

Venema loses me in this chapter. Not because I dispute his understanding of genetics (I am not competent to do this) but because there is a philosophical gap that neither of the book’s authors appears to recognise. In an earlier chapter, Venema has used change in the English language from Old English to Modern English as an analogy for biological evolution, and he does this really well. However, language change is random, within the constraints of our vocal organs, our cognitive faculties, our communicative needs and the prevailing grammar of the language. This means it is unpredictable (we don’t know what the English language will be like in 100 years’ time) and non-teleological. That is, individual changes do not have purpose. My understanding is that biological evolution is held to have similar qualities: it is random, but it is constrained by the organism’s present architecture, by the form of the genome itself, and by the environment in which the organism lives (this is the essence of natural selection). By rejecting intelligent design, Venema also rejects teleology/purpose. This is a problem for Christian theology, which holds that human beings were created by God for a purpose: to be in relationship with him, to love him and be loved by him. Evolutionary biology appears to hold that we are the way we are as a result of constrained but random changes. This means we could have been creatures of a different kind from what we actually are. I think many Christian theologians would reject this, countering that we were purposefully created ‘in God’s image’. How would Venema bridge this gap, I wonder?

In the course of this chapter Venema writes:

Could it be that God, in his wisdom, chose to use what we would call a “natural” mechanism to fill his creation with biodiversity adapted to its environment? And to use evolution to allow his creation to continue to adapt as that environment’s conditions shifted over time? If he did, would he be any less a creator than if he had done so miraculously? I think not. Though it is not something that science can speak to—since it goes beyond what science can establish—I view evolution as God’s grand design for creating life.

Venema avoids the issue here, because he speaks of biodiversity, not of humanity. I don’t argue with the conclusion, but with the fact that the gap between the purposelessness of evolution and the purposefulness of creation remains unbridged.

The reason, I think, why the authors don’t address the gap is that their focus is quite narrow: it is to counter a particular argument of American young earth creationism. The argument says that human fallenness is inherited (some would say physically) from Adam and Eve, so if you take away Adam and Eve, you take away the fall, and Christian doctrine collapses. This can be devastating for some young Christians who are then faced with a choice between faith and science.

In his (latter) half of the book, Scot McKnight, a well known evangelical theologian and New Testament scholar, argues that when Paul writes about Adam, he does not have a single historical person in mind.

First, however, McKnight[1] presents some principles for reading the Bible, reminding us that context matters, and context includes the culture and goals of each book’s writers. There were a number of creation stories in the Middle Eastern world in which Genesis was written, and in each there are multiple gods who quarrel and who seem to be inside creation, using human beings for labour. The stories in Genesis 1–3 are sharply different. Their message is that there is only one god and that he is the creator and is outside his creation. He creates human beings to occupy a special place in his creation, to exercise responsibility for it, to be his image-bearers in it, enabling creation to flourish by continuing God’s creative work within it. It is these contrasts with contemporary creation stories that matter, trumpeting a message across the Middle East that the God of the Jews is in a class entirely of his own and that he has not created humanity to be servile but to be special.2

In the midst of presenting this, McKnight writes:

All of life is by God’s design, and all of life—from the tiniest microbe to the largest mammal and to humans—comes into being as a result of God’s own display of creative power. The history of evolutionary theory, from the angle of creative evolution (a God-planned process, whether as a result of intrusion or, more likely, by the way God constructed the DNA of the smallest organic matter to unfold in our direction), is a history that shows humans at the “end” of a spectrum or a process.

This says to me that that McKnight bridges the philosophical gap here with a version of intelligent design—but it is irrelevant to him whether his version rests on evidence within molecular biology itself, as Behe’s and Meyer’s versions do. What is crucial is that God's creation of humanity was purposeful.

McKnight also points out that the story of Adam and Eve and the fall is a prototype of the story of Israel—they are given a special role in a special place under special conditions. They break those conditions (cf Hosea 6:7) and incur exile. This would have been obvious to Jews of Jesus' time. It is also a remarkably clear parable (the most important parable in the history of the world) of the story of humanity, unwilling to be God’s viceroys and wanting to reign in his stead.[3] 

Wright (2014) writes with considerable force that to read Genesis 1–3 focussing on human origins is to miss the point (perhaps to shield oneself from the point) of the narrative. God gives humanity a vocation, a call to be his image-bearers, a call now renewed in Jesus. If we do not see this, 'we are massively missing the point, perhaps pursuing our own dream of an otherworldly salvation that merely colludes with the forces of evil….'

After Genesis, Adam disappears from the Protestant Bible[4] except as the initiator of a genealogy (1 Chronicles 1:1, Luke 3:8, Jude 14) until we come to Paul’s letters. McKnight argues in convincing detail that Paul’s view of Adam reflects that of contemporary Jewish writings, in which Adam is not so much the ancestor of humanity as the archetype of humanity. The point is not that we have acquired our fallenness through (physical?) inheritance from Adam, but rather that Adam’s fallenness is a depiction of the fallenness of each of us. McKnight says that the New Testament text does not support the physical inheritance theory of the fall. Paul neither affirms nor denies transmission of sin or the sinful nature via procreation. Instead, Paul’s concern is to contrast Adam, the archetypal sinful human being, with Jesus, the sinless human being, as, for example, in Romans 5:14–15.[5] McKnight cites Wright (2014): Paul's point in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 'is that Jesus is already enthrones, already king, already reigning. In other words, he is at last where Adam was supposed to be. There is at last an obedient human being at the helm of the universe', doing what Adam and Eve were called to do.

The inheritance-of-sin theory, McKnight explains, has its roots in Jerome’s ambiguous translation of Paul’s Greek in Romans 5:12 into the Latin Vulgate and its subsequent elaboration by Augustine. The Greek reads

Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι᾿ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν, καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν, ἐφ᾿ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον·

The crucial phrase is bolded. It is translated because in the NIV

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— (NIV)

and ‘in that’ by N.T. Wright. But Jerome translates it as Latin in quo 'in whom' or 'in which'—

propterea sicut per unum hominem in hunc mundum peccatum intravit, et per peccatum mors et ita in omnes homines mors pertransiit in quo omnes peccaverunt (Vulgate, Romans 4:24: verse numbering differs from the standard).

—and this is the source of the inheritance-of-sin theory. What a difference a mistranslated semantic relationship between clauses can make.

Finally, I beg you, dear reader, not to take this as a summary of the book. These are only points that struck me. If you decide to read it you may well find treasure that I have missed.

Footnotes

  1. [^1]  McKinght’s presentation is far more scholarly than my comments suggest, but I have decided to overlook most of his sources in the interests of readability.
  2. [^2]  That the stories in Genesis 1–3 are of their writers’ time and place and not a direct piece of historical writing is supported by the fact that they depict an agricultural context. The earliest human beings were foragers who hunted and gathered. Agriculture came later.
  3. [^3]  McKnight mentions various scholars here. foremost among them Enns (2012:66).
  4. [^4]  I write ‘the Protestant Bible’ because Adam appears in the Aprocrypha: in Sirach/Ecclesiasticus (ca 200 BC) and Wisdom of Solomon (early first century AD).
  5. [^5]  Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (NIV). Note that the interpretation of Adam as an archetype is contested; see, e.g. Dunn (1988:273).

References

Bеhе, Michael J., 1996. Darwin's black box: The biochemical challenge to evolution. New York: Free Press.

Dunn, James D.G., 1988. Word Bible commentary. vol. 38a, Romans 1–8. Dallas TX: Word Books.

Enns, Peter, 2012. The evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins. Grand Rapids MI: Brazos.

Lennox, John C., 2007. God’s undertaker: Has science buried God? Oxford: Lion Hudson.

Meyer, Stephen, 2009 . Signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for intelligent design. New York: HarperOne.

Meyer, Stephen, 2013. Darwin’s doubt: The explosive origin of animal life and the case for intelligent design. New York: HarperOne.

Wright, Tom, 2014. Do we need a historical Adam?. In Surprised by Scripture: Engaging with contemporary issues. London: SPCK.


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